How does this baseball thing work, anyway?

I have to start off by telling you that I’ve been a baseball fan basically since birth. In my house, baseball was required viewing. I collected numerous bits of memorabilia (mostly the kind that has little value now, but a couple of nice pieces), and attended more games than I can count. My father worked as a police office in St. Louis’ 3rd district, and had access to the team and games that made my friends drool. I was spoiled and I didn’t even know it.

Yes, I picked up quite a lot of experiences around old Busch and players as a youngster that I will always cherish. One thing I was never privy to was how to actually win baseball games on a consistent basis. It’s a sport, there’s always an element of chance in play plus so many other variables, many of which one team has no control over.

Coming into the All Star break, the Cards had just taken three out of four from the Pirates, and two out of three from the Brewers. After it, they came out of the gate with two straight wins against a strong Dodger’s club. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Cardinals were clicking. Sure, they dropped the third game in that set, but they were facing Clayton Kershaw for crying out loud. Plus, there was a moral victory in it: the Cards put up three runs against the stingiest Dodger pitcher. Peter Bourjos even hit a two run homer! Heartbreaking? Sure, but it was a loss you can stomach.

After a day off, with the Rays coming to town, hopes were understandably high. The Rays haven’t been that great of a team this year. They’re in fourth in their division with a 49-53 record this season. The Cards are the better team, in pretty much every way. Plus, the Cards wouldn’t even have to face David Price. What’s not to like?

Then the Cards got swept by those same underwhelming Rays. It turns out those Rays are, as they say, “surging.”

So how does baseball work? Are good teams supposed to savagely and mercilessly plunder lesser teams and ensure a vicious cycle of continued failure for those teams? It seems like that’s what should happen. Or, do teams play to the level of the team they face? Maybe the Cards played good baseball against solid Brewers and Dodgers clubs because those opponents are genuinely good.

So here’s another theory: more of having a winning season is based on luck than we usually like to admit.

Let’s face it, to even be in Major League Baseball, you’ve got to be unbelievably good at the game. Pick the player you think is the worst in the game. Don’t tell me, just keep him in mind. Now know this in your heart: that terrible player is likely immeasurably better at baseball than you. The bar is extremely high.

Keep with me here: all MLB players are very talented, and all MLB teams are therefore equipped with the tools required to win games against one another. But at any given time some player is injured, some other player is under-performing. Some teams are on a tear, like the Cards were around the All Star break. Other teams are in a team wide slump, like the Cardinals were in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

So is that how baseball works? Do teams meander through the season hoping to just be hotter than some other team is, not in general, but at that specific moment? Increasingly, I’m believing this is the case. That isn’t to say that stats can’t be trusted, not in the least. A team loaded up with .300 hitters and a pitching staff that’s all sub-three ERA is going to get hot more often than a team with less gaudy players. Still, that excellent team can still be swept by a lesser team.

If that all sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. Numbers matter, and good players are still good. If the outcome of games were based on WAR, we wouldn’t need to actually play games. Luckily, like the disclaimer in a stock broker’s commercial, past performance is not indicative of future results. So there’s still an element of intrigue. That’s the upside. As puzzling as baseball can be, it’s the most dynamic thing out there, and that’s just one of the reasons we all love watching it so much.

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Last updated: 10/06/2022